Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God and Sandy Hook Elementary

There seems to be a widespread belief among Christian fundamentalists that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was somehow directly or indirectly caused because “God is not allowed in schools”.    As if to double down on this theology, several fundamentalist leaders have made public statements to that effect.  Mike Huckabee says school shootings happen because, “God is absent from our schools.”     Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association believes the same thing.  He says “We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I'm not wanted. I am a gentleman.’"

 Apparently chivalry is now an attribute of the divine nature. 
These ideas are nonsense.  God has not abandoned schools, nor does it make any sense to characterize him as someone who sits on the front porch sipping mint juleps and tipping his hat when a lady walks by.  There are many descriptors that can be applied to God’s’ character, but “gentleman” is definitely not one of them.   A quick look at Jesus’ life reveals that he had little interest in gentlemanly behavior.  Indeed the one thing that can be said about Jesus is that he purposely chose NOT to conform to the standard of propriety of his day, nor did he value superficial courtesy for its own sake (which is the underlying definition of ‘gentleman’).   Jesus overturned tables in the Temple and excoriated religious leaders as venomous snakes on a regular basis, things a gentleman would never do.
While it might feel tingly to imagine God as a chivalrous but deferential consort who wouldn’t think of intruding where he isn’t wanted, such an idea fails to correspond with an omnipotent, omnipresent deity “who works all things after the counsel of his own will”. 
Religious rhetoric that intends the phrase “we’ve kicked God out of our public school system “ to mean that we have defined and limited what God can and cannot do and where he may or may not go is a gross misrepresentation of the concept of human free will.  We may decide what we will do, individually and collectively, but we have no authority or power whatsoever to determine what God may do, or how or when he chooses to manifest his presence.   God does not abandon or desert public schools simply because a legal opinion requires that he do so. 
God is not constrained by human laws nor does he disregard or forsake his sovereignty.  It is not enough to say that God has the “right” to govern all things according to his own will but is prevented from doing so by human conventions.  If he is God, then it is necessarily the case that he does, in fact, govern all things always and without exception.  God is not merely sovereign in principle but is sovereign in practice.
As regards matters of practical sovereignty, God exercises what has come to be called providence, which is his continual upholding, sustaining and caring for all that exists.  God’s providential care is unaffected by the whims of human contrivance; he need not seek our permission or obtain our consent.  And, in fact, public school presents endless opportunities for providence to work.
Common sense tells us that public school isn’t an isolated, self-contained component of a child’s life, divorced from the balance of their experiences.  Schooling doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Teachers, administrators, students, staff and volunteers bring their life experiences, their worldviews, their spiritual ideologies with them every time they walk onto campus.  And it is not secular humanists that are teaching and staffing our elementary and secondary schools.  Overwhelmingly, it is Christians.  Three-quarters of all Americans identify themselves as Christian, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, and of that number, fully 68% responded that their religious beliefs were “very important” in their daily lives.  Does anyone really believe that Christian teachers and staff remove their religious beliefs and hang them in the cloak closet until it’s time to go home?  Are teachers and students prevented from engaging in an internal dialogue with God throughout their day?  Is there something about a school building that prevents God from initiating acts of providence in and through the lives of those attune to his presence? One passing comment, one small deed, multiplied countless times throughout the fabric of a typical school day might be just the vehicle that ensures God’s providential work is carried out as he decrees.   And because public schools are local in nature, students are likely to attend the same churches or belong to the same civic organizations as some of their teachers and fellow students.   Parents and families know each other, socialize together, worship together.    
Some people would have us believe that our public schools represent a kind of moral wasteland where God has been excommunicated and our children’s physical and spiritual lives are at peril.   Nothing could be further from the truth.
These fundamentalist leaders know full well what they’re doing.  The real purpose of their statements is to assign blame and guilt, and to further a political agenda.  By doing so, however, they diminish the very God that they purport to revere, and twist his character into a petty, narcissistic demigod whose moral maturity is far less developed than the first graders that he supposedly left to fend for themselves.
We cannot know the “why” of the tragic events in Newtown Connecticut because its very nature is senseless.  But we need not imagine that the children who were killed were alone, abandoned by a God in which most, if not all, believed, on a day that they needed him most.  To envision such a scenario would be cold and heartless. 

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